How to Become a Flight Medic: Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary
Every second counts when responding to a medical emergency, and even the slightest delay can be the difference between life and death.
In most cases, an emergency medical response is done by ambulance. But how do paramedics save lives when an emergency is too far away to drive?
Flight Paramedics (also called Flight Medics, Air Medics, or Life Flight Paramedics) play a critical role in providing emergency medical services to remote locations. Whether saving lives in aero-medical emergencies, performing evacuations, or stabilizing and transporting patients to hospitals, air medics provide medical assistance where it would otherwise be impossible.
If you’re an EMT or paramedic who has the taste for adventure, is not afraid of heights, and is seeking the promise of a thrilling challenge in your career, becoming a flight paramedic might be the perfect fit.
This career guide will provide a comprehensive overview of becoming a flight paramedic, one of the many alternative career options available to trained EMTs and paramedics.
(Click here to see our full list of alternative jobs for EMTs and paramedics).
Continue reading to learn more about the role of a flight paramedic, as well as their required training, responsibilities, salaries, and benefits.
Flight Paramedic Duties & Responsibilities
What Does a Flight Medic Do?
Like all paramedics, the primary job of a flight paramedic is to treat injuries and illnesses. What makes the life of a flight medic interesting is where those injuries and illnesses are treated.
Helicopters are the primary mode of transportation for flight medics, since their versatility allows them to get in and out of tight situations quickly. Due to the low flying altitude, the travel risks are significantly higher than that of an ambulance, so flight paramedics are trained in flight safety and protocol as well as emergency medicine.
Common responsibilities for flight paramedics include:
- Flight to and from emergency medical situations
- Treating wounds and injuries in the field
- Administering medication, injections, and IVs
- Patient assessment and stabilization
- Maintaining medical supply inventory
- Inspecting first aid equipment
- Assessing whether employees can return to work
- Transporting patients for additional medical care
- Communication with remote medical control and doctors while treating patients
- Performing advanced medical procedures such as intubation, ventilator management, line placement, and general anesthetics and paralytics
What Is the Difference Between a Flight Medic and a Flight Nurse?
The responsibilities of a flight medic are very similar to that of a flight nurse. Both focus on safely transporting patients, stabilizing patients after emergencies, and administering varying medical procedures and treatments. In fact, the roles can even seem interchangeable at times, as the two may work together closely during an aerial rescue.
A flight nurse, however, requires a nursing certification, and may have greater authority to administer a wider range of IVs and medications. Furthermore, flight nurses can generally expect higher salaries for their increased responsibilities.
According to the IAFCCP, a flight paramedic / flight nurse combination is the most common crew configuration for emergency medical flights in the United States.
Flight Paramedic Job Description
What Is a Typical Day for an Air Medic?
Like a traditional EMT or paramedic, much of the day for a flight paramedic revolves around routine and schedule, interrupted (as needed) by emergency calls. However, because of the greater range of a helicopter over an ambulance, flight paramedics are responsible for a much greater number of potential patients across a wider range of emergency scenarios.
Because medical emergencies can happen at any time, flight medics have to be on call 24 hours a day, and they’re typically called to respond to two types of situations: accidents that are out of range for a ambulance, and medical transports where time is critical.
Attending patients from a multi-million-dollar helicopter requires several steps and procedures that wouldn’t be required for a paramedic operating from an ambulance. These include pre-flight safety checks, constant communication with ground control and the hospital, as well as additional safety protocols that can vary depending on the EMS company you work for.
When all is said and done, the goal of a flight paramedic is the same as any emergency medical professional: save lives and return safely.
Flight Paramedic Hours
For flight paramedics, work hours are assigned by shift, similar to an ambulance paramedic. Traditional 12-hour shift are the norm in most locations, as flight medics must be well-rested to do their job at 100%. Shifts may also cover nights, weekends, and holidays.
Like fire stations and other emergency medical centers, air medics may have the chance to grab some sleep during overnight shifts, but they’re also expected to be ready to fly at any given moment.
Flight Paramedic Salary
How Much Does an Air Medic Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t differentiate between flight medics and ambulance paramedics, and puts the average salary of a paramedic at $35,400 a year (or $17 dollars an hour) depending on location. The BLS also predicts a 6% industry growth, which is a much faster rise than most industries.
However, according to the website Payscale.com, flight paramedics can expect to earn a higher amount than their ambulatory counterparts, earning between $20 and $24 per hour on average (or $50,000 to $60,000 yearly), and that number should rise as years of experience are accumulated.
The higher pay and exciting nature of the flight paramedic job make the position very attractive, so if you do plan to apply, bring your A game because there’s bound to be competition.
There are currently 3,000 flight medics at work across the country and over 200 programs that fly with flight paramedics on board (iafccp.org).
Flight Paramedic Requirements
How to Become a Flight Medic
Requirements for flight paramedics vary from company to company, but for most hiring organizations, the requirements to become a flight paramedic include:
- Be Licensed as a paramedic by a state EMS board
- 3-5 years as the lead paramedic in a high call volume EMS ground service
- Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, Pre-Hospital Trauma Life Support
Additional requirements may also include:
- Neonatal Resuscitation Program
- Certifications such as the FP-C or CCP-C (typically required within 2 years of initial hire)
- Critical care classes such as the CCEMTP by UMBC.
EMTs interested in a career as a flight paramedic will first need to go through paramedic training and certification. This includes 1,200+ hours of training in addition to EMT training, which can take one to two years to complete.
(Click here to learn how to become a paramedic).
Flight Paramedic Might Be A Good Fit for You If…
- You do not have a fear of heights or flying
- You do not get motion sickness
- You are calm under pressure
- You can make critical decisions with little to no direct supervision
- You like frequent change and adventure
- You are meticulous and thorough with safety procedures
- You can triage in emergency situations
Flight Medic Height & Weight Requirements
Unlike ambulance EMT and paramedic requirements, flight paramedics have additional height and weight requirements as well. While there isn’t an official height or weight maximum nationwide, individual companies may have restrictions (for example, many companies prefer their flight staff be under 250 lbs).
Height is often a greater factor than weight, however, as flight medics must be able to operate comfortably within a cramped cabin. Exact restrictions will depend on what type of aircraft is being flown.
Flight Paramedic Education
What Training Is Required to Become a Flight Medic?
A specialized degree is not required to become an air medic, but exact requirements may vary from company to company. Some employers, for example, may require additional certifications or continuing education. Others may require a minimum time as an ambulance paramedic in a leadership role. The competition to become a flight paramedic is fierce, and employers may add additional requirements at any time to help narrow down applicants.
Flight Paramedic Certification
As mentioned earlier, to become a flight medic, you must first be a certified paramedic.
According to the NREMT (National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), anyone applying to become a paramedic must meet requirements that include the following:
- You must be 18 or older
- You must currently be certified as an EMT (click here to learn how to become an EMT)
- You must have completed a CAAHEP-accredited paramedic program within the last two years
- You must be CPR certified
- You must complete a psychomotor competency portfolio (proof that you can physically handle the job of a paramedic)
- You must complete the NREMT paramedic cognitive and psychomotor certification exams
To begin, you must register for the exam at NREMT.org. The cost of the registration fee is $125, per attempt. Upon completion, you’ll then be emailed an ATT (authorization to test) with your exam location.
Paramedic certification consists of two main parts, the cognitive exam and the psychomotor exam.
The Cognitive Exam – The cognitive portion of the exam focuses on many of the core EMT principles you learned during your paramedic training program and is graded on a pass/fail basis:
- Trauma patients, and
The Psychomotor Exam – In addition to your computer exam (cognitive), paramedic students must also pass a psychomotor exam as well. This exam tests your ability to apply your knowledge in the field. During the exam, you’ll be asked to:
- Size-up a scene
- Perform initial resuscitation
- Take a patient’s history
- Make a secondary assessment
- Read an ECG and manage both:
- A cardiac irregularity, such as arrhythmia
- A cardiac arrest
You’ll also be tested on your communication skills—both receiving information and giving commands.
Once certified as a paramedic, additional flight certification is typically required, known as the FP-C or CCP-C certifications. The good news is that employers will often allow flight paramedics to achieve these certifications after they’ve been hired and within the first years of employment, so studying and earning these certifications won’t necessarily delay you from achieving your goal of taking to the skies as a flight medic.
Additional Flight Paramedic Certification
In addition to certification as a paramedic, flight medics are also required to hold a second certification, the FP-C or the CCP-C. Exact requirements may differ between employers—some may ask that applicants hold FP-C or CCP-C certification before being hired, others allow employees to take the FP-C or CCP-C exams after beginning work.
Both the FP-C and CCP-C certifications are offered through the International Board of Specialty Certification (IBSC).
FP-C Certification (Certified Flight Paramedic)
This exam certifies an applicant’s field experience, emergency medicine knowledge, and advanced level knowledge of various transports. The full FP-C exam handbook, including practice questions, can be found here.
CCP-C Certification (Certified Critical Care Paramedic)
The CCP-C exam is similar in scope to the FP-C exam, but with a stronger focus on patient care and emergency medical procedure and technique. The full CCP-C exam handbook can be found here.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Flight Paramedic?
The time required to become a flight paramedic can vary depending on your chosen educational route.
For someone studying full-time, paramedic training can be completed within a year.
For those studying part-time while continuing to work as an EMT, courses may take two to three years to complete.
Some programs also require future paramedics to have up to six months experience as an EMT before they can begin their paramedics classes.
Paramedics also have the option of advancing their training with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university—though this route is typically reserved for paramedics who hope to advance to management roles or eventually enroll in medical school.
Flight Paramedic Required Skills
Besides the educational and certification requirements, flight medics should exhibit the following skills to be successful:
- Attention to Detail – When flight is involved, attention to detail doesn’t just protect patients, it also protects you as a flight medic. Safety must come first, gear must be checked, and mistakes must be avoided.
- Resource Management – Air medics are often in charge of medical supply inventory, so maintaining this supply, ordering additional items, and rationing distribution is vital.
- Decision Making – Flight paramedics work without the direct supervision of a doctor when treating patients in the field, so the ability to make critical decisions is crucial.
- Communication – Flight paramedics must maintain open lines of communication with their patients, their managers, ground control, their operating hospital and other emergency medical professionals.
- Risk Assessment – Any flight has risks, and flying into emergency situations can be even riskier. Flight paramedics have to assess situations daily to determine risk factors for patients and for themselves.
- Flexibility – Emergencies can arise at any moment. Anything can happen in the field, and equipment can malfunction or go missing. A good flight medic must be flexible in order to do their job under any circumstance.
From EMT to Flight Paramedic
How Can My EMT Experience Help Me Become a Flight Paramedic?
EMT and paramedic experience is a required foundation for becoming a flight medic. Not only is it crucial training for the transportation and emergency situations you’ll encounter in the field, but solid EMT and paramedic experience can also help you stand out as an applicant in a highly competitive field.
Other benefits include:
- Shift Experience – EMTs and paramedics know how to make the most of a 12-hour shift, how to rest when necessary, and how to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
- Proof of Performance – EMTs and paramedics have proven experience in handling emergency situations.
- Communication – EMTs and paramedics understand the “shop talk” of emergency medicine.
- Leadership – EMTs and paramedics working in remote locations will often have to assume leadership roles and make difficult decisions. Leadership skills learned as part of an ambulance crew transfer directly to life on a helicopter crew.
- Organizational Skills – EMTs and paramedics are accustomed to collecting patient information, triaging, maintaining gear, and running safety checks… all vital steps for a successful flight medic.
Beginning Your Career as a Flight Paramedic
Becoming a flight paramedic is an exciting and possibly life-changing next step for qualified EMTs and paramedics.
If you’re not already an EMT and would like to gain the real-world experience needed to become a flight paramedic, you can start by training for EMT certification.
Earning your EMT certification as the first step towards becoming a flight medic not only gets you closer to your goal, but it allows you to start saving lives right away as you work towards that final dream career. And how many jobs can give you that?